“Is this America?” Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party

22 Aug

“If the freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America.  Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?”

–Fannie Lou Hamer

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech to the credentials committee of the Democratic National Convention. August marked the end of Freedom Summer, a campaign designed in words of Robert Moses to, “open up the state of Mississippi.” The efforts of Moses and other activists such as Amzie Moore, Dave Dennis, and Fannie Lou Hamer centered around attempting to change the voter registration system in Mississippi where in 1962 only 6.7% of African-Americans were registered to vote. In the summer of 1964 the Freedom Summer campaign was launched and volunteers from all over the country came to Mississippi to help register African-Americans to vote.

Fannie Lou Hamer was the daughter of sharecroppers and had been working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to try to expand voting rights for African-Americans in Mississippi. This was no easy task and people engaged in this work were often threatened, harassed or beaten by segregationists. Hamer was a member of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party (MDFP), a group that she and other activist formed in response to Mississippi’s all-white Democratic party representatives. The MDFP traveled to the national convention in Atlantic City in 1964 and demanded to be recognized and given voting privileges. Hamer gave an electrifying speech where she described an episode of shocking police brutality after she and her fellow activists were arrested in Winona, Mississippi on false charges. She was so compelling as a speaker that President Johnson called an emergency press conference to divert attention away from her and the MDFP’s demands which were not in line with his political agenda. Despite these efforts the speech was picked up and played on news programs and garnered a lot of support for the Freedom Party’s demands. Eventually the Democratic Party agreed to two votes for the MDFP, but Hamer and her fellow party members rejected that compromise.

Even though the MDFP didn’t meet their goal, Fannie Lou Hamer focused the attention of the nation on the appalling conditions that black Mississippians were forced to endure, and her honest and emotional speech remains a pivotal moment in the history of the civil rights movement. You can hear Hamer’s speech in its entirety in the link above.

 

 

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